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*Editor’s note: Elephant Journal articles represent the personal views of the authors, and can not possibly reflect Elephant Journal as a whole. Disagree with an Op-Ed or opinion? We’re happy to share your experience here.
Trigger warnings have been widely used as far back as the World War I and II days when psychologists were trying understand “war neurosis,” which is now formally known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
According to Jessica Coen from Jezebel, “As a human being you’re responsible for what media you engage with. If a Jezebel headline says ‘harrowing,’ or ‘terrible,’ or ‘horrible,’ that’s a pretty good indicator that the content will be difficult…That’s the web standard. If you start warning for one thing, you have to decide which unpleasant thing is worth a trigger and which isn’t. That isn’t a position an editor should be in.”
Trigger warnings skyrocketed after a massive number of women bravely came forward in the #MeToo movement.
It was not hard to open your phone and find horrific detailed stories circulating everywhere, like the Brett Kavanaugh scandal, and the Netflix documentary detailing R. Kelly’s history of sexual and physical abuse toward young girls and women he had in his home.
One by one, more women and even men came out—celebrities, friends, family, loved ones, teachers, and coworkers.
It seemed almost everyone you knew had some kind of #MeToo story to tell. It was heart wrenching to hear all their stories. As someone who has a #MeToo story of my own, I wondered how I could not feel constantly bombarded.
Hence, the “Trigger Warning” was posted on almost every article or Facebook post.
“Trigger warning: Sexual assault.”
“Trigger warning: Suicide.”
“Trigger warning: Rape.”
“Trigger warning: Triggering content.”
According to Harvard psychology professor and PTSD expert, Dr. David Richard McNally, “Severe emotional reactions triggered by course material are a signal that students need to prioritize their mental health and obtain evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral therapies that will help them overcome PTSD.”
In other words, severe emotional reactions are not an indication that we should warn people in advance that material could be triggering for those with PTSD. Constantly warning people with PTSD about possible triggers could potentially even interfere with their recovery.
As Lukianoff and Haidt point out in their newest book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the avoidance of triggers is not a treatment for PTSD; it is a classic symptom of it. In fact, according to Dr. McNally, therapies that promote recovery from PTSD “involve gradual, systematic exposure to traumatic memories until [the capacity of those memories] to trigger distress diminishes.”
The overuse of trigger warnings may be doing more harm than not. Where is the line drawn? Is it actually helping people, or perpetuating more triggers for people?
There’s another part of me that believes, as a human being, that I am not responsible for your triggers or traumas.
Now, that may sound harsh, but let me explain. We all have triggers and have experienced trauma at some point in our lives to varying degrees. With social media, whether it’s a video or written content, I shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells because of what happened to you.
We cannot continuously run from our problems—it’s like the helicopter parent who refuses to let their child be a kid, for example. They need to fall and scrape their knees once in a while, or play in the mud, or eat a non-organic vegetable without parents hovering, worrying about cancer. You get the idea.
We can’t live in this bubble of sunshine and rainbows. Life isn’t always that, and sometimes we read horrible things in the news, or hear sad stories from people. This is the world we live in. And it was always this way—we just have social media that is now shining a light on it. We now have a place to vent to our friends about our horrible day at work or how depressed we are.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t vent about our issues—but since we have this public forum showing all of our world’s problems, we have a choice to make: to read it or keep scrolling.
For example, Anthony Bourdain’s death triggered the f*ck out of me. A family member of mine has attempted suicide many times, which has traumatized me for years. I’ve come a long way since then, but man did his death kick up some dirt. Plus, I’d looked up to him, as many of us did, but especially because I’m a writer, traveler, and a lover of food like he was.
It felt like I couldn’t read anything about suicide online—it seemed like everyone was wanting to or had killed themselves. It felt like a wave of suicide ideations had begun after his death, and then Kate Spade’s. It made me realize, “Wow, okay, I guess I still have some things to work through.”
We need to be responsible for our own emotions and actions.
No one else is responsible, and only we can change how we feel; only we can heal from our past traumas. The world doesn’t owe us a trigger warning. It’s okay to be triggered to some degree—it’s our body’s response to something that we haven’t fully healed yet. We can’t pull the covers over our heads and hope the monster will be gone when the sun comes up.
The healing journey isn’t an easy road—I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that it is. As people, and especially in our American society, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We’re programmed to find the next best thing to fix our emotions, whether it’s food, sex, drugs, alcohol, or shopping. We have drug commercials up the ass for any and every kind of ailment under the sun: “Come to America, where we have a pill for anything!”
When we face our fears—which, of course, must happen at our own pace—we are given the option to either stay fearful or to overcome it. We can continue to choose the same story, or we can use our past traumas and experiences to empower one another. We can slowly walk the path to healing.